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More calm, less chaos? More troops
by Jay Bookman
Atlantic Journal-Constitution
September 23, 2004

It is a tale of two cities, a tale of what might have been and what now may never be. It is the tale of a halfhearted gamble lost by swaggering, halfhearted men, and of two countries that will suffer the consequence of their callowness for decades.

Tikrit is the hometown of Saddam Hussein, and early in our occupation it was a feared town of hard cases and Baathist loyalists, of men who shared Saddam's tribe, wealth and cruelty. But while much of Iraq has erupted in violence in recent months, Tikrit has been largely silent, tranquil in the calm of the pacified. Fearsome Tikrit generates no headlines and few bodies.

The explanation is simple. The Army's 1st Infantry Division is headquartered in Tikrit, and its footprint has been heavy and it has been felt. U.S. troops patrol the streets in relative safety, because here, if nowhere else in Iraq, they have been given the numbers to squelch opposition. "I can sit on that corner, on 'RPG Alley,' and eat an ice cream cone now," Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sinclair recently told the Associated Press, pointing on a map to the infamous city's most infamous street.

Before the invasion, the haughty amateurs who planned this brave adventure were warned that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to pacify Iraq. Rather than listen and learn, they scoffed at the four-star generals who spouted such nonsense. These men knew better, for in the Washington think tanks that had nurtured them like fragile hothouse orchids, eager Iraqi exiles had assured them that if we invaded, we would be greeted as liberators, that our path would be strewn with roses, that our leaders would be honored with statues on Baghdad squares.

Tikrit, by its silence, condemns those men for their arrogance. Here, at the very core of Saddam's strength, the difficult has been achieved. The calm may be a sullen calm, an enforced calm, but it is a calm nonetheless. This is what might have been elsewhere in Iraq if competence had been valued over blind allegiance, if we had been led into this war by serious people who understood that when you bet high stakes, you play to win and you assume nothing.

Even now, administration officials stubbornly deny that more troops would help. They do so because they know that no troops are available, and that they have so alienated our allies that no help can come from that quarter either.

The consequences are on clear display in Fallujah, barely 80 miles from Tikrit.

There, no American dares to set foot in the city. A place that we once controlled has slipped from our grasp because we lack the manpower to hold it, and in our absence the city has become a cancer spreading death throughout Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who beheads innocent civilians on videotape, is believed to operate from a safe haven in Fallujah. Many of the car bombs that wreak havoc in Baghdad on an almost daily basis are assembled in Fallujah and then driven out of the city unhindered.

And yet our troops sit outside the city and do nothing. Last spring, after a Fallujah mob captured and mutilated four American contractors, officials in Washington ordered Marines to retaliate and retake the city. But after three days of fighting, and with victory in sight, Washington reversed its order. The politicians who strut and celebrate themselves as tough guys could not take the heat.

The PR slicks at the Pentagon called the move a "strategic repositioning," but it was a retreat. The insurgents knew it and took heart. The Marines, who lost six of their colleagues for nothing, knew it too, and felt sick to their stomachs. After surrendering command of the Fallujah area this month, Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway publicly criticized that vacillation by his superiors. "Once you commit," he said, "you have to stay committed."

Today, the people who once styled themselves as the vanguard of a new American century stare at their disaster and have no idea what to do next. They have proved to have more ambition than guts, more bravado than real conviction, and that has never worked out well. Not this time, not ever. It's heartbreaking what they've done.

Posted: September 27, 2004


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